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November 20, 2017

The Heroes Reviving India’s Heritage Textiles: Swati Agarwal And Sunaina Jalan

Text by Sharmi Ghosh Dastidar

“There was an erroneous notion that the sari was only for the elderly. Thankfully this idea is passé.”

Where: Kolkata
Known for: Benarasis

It’s like a precious jewel in a curio box. This gem, handwoven by a weaver in Varanasi, bears the hallmark of exquisite craftsmanship, heritage and intricacy. These six-yard wonders are charming wearers today, courtesy the labour of textile designers Swati Agarwal and Sunaina Jalan. Doggedly reviving the moribund weaves of Varanasi with a fresh design perspective that is both luxurious and versatile, these sisters-in-law have infused renewed vigour into forgotten warps and wefts. The limited-edition heirloom Benarasi saris, under their eponymous label, are synonymous with bespoke brilliance.

Imbibing the love for heirloom saris from ancestors, Agarwal and Jalan noticed the dearth of quality handwoven saris in the market in 2003. “Even in the most upmarket boutiques, nothing caught our fancy. When my brother-in-law was getting married, I failed to find a sari close to what I was looking for. That was a wake-up call,” recalls Agarwal.

The two journeyed to Varanasi to enlighten themselves about the procedure and the craft. “When we implored an award-winning master weaver to create a sari using an ancient pattern, his reply baffled us. He lamented the lack of demand for such elaborate weaves because artisans were forced to create only certain patterns. These brilliant craftsmen fell prey to skewed market mechanics. Amidst this fracas, the stunning design graphs were fading,” elaborate the duo.

Determined to revive old Benarasi treasures, Agarwal and Jalan launched their label in 2003. The play of colours, a handiwork of Jalan, coupled with interesting blouses, adds a contemporary spin. But it’s been an uphill task educating the buyer about the luxury aspect of their work. “There was an erroneous notion that the sari was only for the elderly. Thankfully this idea is passé. Young entrepreneurs proudly drape our saris for important meetings, shunning the pantsuit. It gives them that gravitas,” says Jalan.

Agarwal adds, “It’s a painstaking process to create each sari. For instance, a rangkaat sari involves a complex weave procedure. When clients show concern over the pricing, we suggest they drape the sari. Then they are able to distinguish it from the regular commercial stuff.”

Each of their saris is a pièce de résistance, which they wrap in a muslin cloth, and put in a wooden box that also contains a diary, an authentication certificate, a spool of the zari, and a description of the handcrafted piece. “These essentials stretch its longevity, as they are one-off items,” maintains Jalan.

Agarwal and Jalan are popular for their concept saris as well. An ivory-silk sari with zari raindrops cascading down is helmed by a woven ivory border. Motifs such as Sufi singers, Rajasthani gota patti, Persian vases and jhumkis are found in abundance, along with traditional Shikargah patterns and figures inspired by Pichwai paintings. “Our creative faculties are piqued by anything motivating — Mughal architecture, Persian drawings, South Indian jewellery, chintz or the bounteous nature. We play with placements and geometry so that every sari is a conversation starter,” they conclude.

Next: Palak Shah of Ekaya

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